A Californian court has ordered a whistle-blowing website to be taken down in a controversial ruling last Friday. Wikileaks.org was ordered off the air by Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Federal District Court following a case brought by Swiss banking group Julius Baer. Lawyers for Julius Baer brought the case to trial after several documents posted on the site allegedly revealed that the bank was involved with money laundering and tax evasion. The bank alleges the documents were stolen.
After an ex-parte hearing, the court ordered the controller of the sites domain name, Dynadot, should "prevent the domain name from resolving to the wikileaks.org website or any other website or server other than a blank park page, until further order of this Court." Wikileaks did not have the chance to address the issue in court. They claim that the order was unconstitutional and said that the site had been forcibly censored. The judge ordered Dynadot to delete Wikileaks.org deleted from the DNS (domain name server) but clearly does not understand how the internet works. Despite the order, the site can still be accessed via the IP address "http://126.96.36.199" at its Swedish hosting site and through mirror sites in Europe that replicate its contents.
The take-down decision has caused uproar and derision in the online community. Writing in the Guardian, Charles Arthur says the decision is a prima facie infringement of the US First Amendment prohibiting the abridging of free speech. Arthur says Wikileaks has annoyed many people with its determination to publish leaked documents. “Finally,” he says, "it properly annoyed someone who had the money for lawyers”.
Duncan Riley at Techcrunch points out that because the material is still available in the public domain, the likelihood is that more people will read the documents as a result of the publicity of the trial than would ever have bothered otherwise. Richard Stiennon at ZDNet says it is an outrageous move by a US court to attempt to destroy a website because of a complaint about a particular set of files. “I wonder how they justify that?” he asked. “Luckily the Internet is made of a series of tubes and the DNS is only a small part of the plumbing”.
Over at their Swedish home, Wikileaks released the trail of correspondence between themselves and Julius Baer’s solicitors. On 15 January, Baer’s solicitors charged Wikileaks of posting content that constituted “violation of trade secrets, conversion and stolen documents by former employee in violation of a written
Confidentiality agreement and copyright infringement” but consistently refused to reveal the name of their client nor would they identify what documents were causing the trouble. After several more days of fruitless exchanges between Wikileaks and the bank’s lawyers, it all went quiet until the ex-parte hearing last week.
Wikileaks was founded in 2006 by Chinese dissidents and by journalists, mathematicians and computer specialists in the United States, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. It has published 1.2 million documents and says its goal, is to develop “an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.” It has published important leaked material from across the world, including the top secret US Rules of Engagement in Iraq and news about Guantanamo Bay officials conducting covert propaganda attacks on the internet.
The Julius Baer story began in 2005 when the bank’s former Chief Operating Officer on the Cayman Islands was suspected of leaking information to the press. Rudolf Elmer is accused of being the source of the information that the bank specialized in hiding and laundering the money of the ultra rich through anonymising offshore trust structures. Wikileaks obtained and published documents related to the Caymans issue. The bank tried to stop Wikileaks publishing the information because of a court case related to the problem in Switzerland which commenced in December last year.
Julie Turner, a Californian attorney who has represented Wikileaks in previous litigation, told Wired she is surprised that the San Francisco court sanctioned such a broad agreement to remove the site. She had been speaking with the bank last month on Wikileaks' behalf when the negotiations fell through. “It’s like saying that Time magazine published one page of sensitive material so (someone can) seize the entire magazine and put a lock on their presses," she says. With Wikileaks making comparisons to the Pentagon Papers and invoking the First Amendment, this judgement is a certainty to be thrown out in a higher court. In the meantime, the Internet makes the law look like an ass.